In this lesson, we will explore the similarities and differences between Roman and early Christian art. We will pay special attention to how Christians used Roman forms, motifs, and architecture to communicate new meanings.

Roman Influences

Christianity began in the Jewish community, but it didn’t stay there. As the first century CE progressed, Christianity attracted converts from all over the Greco-Roman world. These new Christians brought their own ideas, traditions, and practices along with them and adapted them to their adopted faith. This is true of art, too. Christians who had once been pagans of the Roman Empire didn’t give up their artistic heritage when they became believers in Jesus. In fact, they made good use of Roman artistic forms and motifs, as well as Roman architecture, to express and deepen their new faith. In this lesson, we’ll see how the world of Roman art influenced the developing art of the early Christians.

Roman Forms and Motifs

First off, early Christians followed the Romans in placing great value on the use of art for personal and cultural expression. They believed that artistic forms and motifs could help them communicate and intensify their Christian faith, and they borrowed many of these forms and motifs from the Roman art that surrounded them.

In terms of artistic forms, early Christian artists joined their Roman counterparts in creating frescoes, which are watercolor paintings done on plaster, carving elaborate relief sculptures, which stand out from a background like 3D pictures, designing stunning mosaics, which are images formed from hundreds of small pieces of stone or glass, and producing decorative marble tombs called sarcophagi.

Early Christians also made use of numerous artistic motifs borrowed from the Romans.

  • The shepherd figure, usually a beardless young man with a sheep on his shoulders, was common to Roman landscape art and dates back all the way to the Greek art of the sixth century BCE. Christians, also employing Biblical imagery, adopted the shepherd figure to portray Christ.
  • The philosopher figure is usually depicted as an authoritative teacher wearing a toga and holding a scroll. Christians used the philosopher motif in their artistic representations of both Christ and His apostles.
  • The law giver figure is found in Roman art to emphasize the supremacy of Roman rulers. Christians showed Christ as their supreme law giver.
  • The reclining figure is common in Roman art and used to elegantly depict sleepers. Christians adopted the motif to help illustrate Bible stories, like that of Jonah.
  • The festive meal motif was used by the Romans to indicate celebrations. Christians also employed the theme, but they used it to refer to the Eucharist.
  • The triumphant entry motif communicated the victories of a ruler for the Romans. Christians borrowed it to show Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before His crucifixion.

Borrowed Roman Buildings

Early Christians also borrowed from the Romans in their architectural endeavors. In the first two centuries of Christianity, Christians worshiped in house churches, which were private homes of the Roman style adapted to accommodate the celebration of Christian sacraments. These house churches usually followed the Roman style with several rooms grouped around a central open courtyard.

Christians modified these Roman buildings by turning one room into a baptistry where new Christians were baptized, or sacramentally immersed in water, as part of their initiation into Christianity. They also usually removed the wall dividing two rooms in the back of the house to form one large meeting hall where the whole community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. By worshiping in private spaces, Christians, who practiced an illegal religion and were subject to persecution, could blend in with their surroundings and minimize raids from the Roman authorities.

After Christianity became legal in 313 CE, Christians could begin building public church buildings. They chose to adopt and adapt the basilica, which was a Roman structure often used for judicial proceedings. The Christians appreciated the basilica’s large gathering area, called the nave, which could accommodate their growing numbers. They also made good use of the basilica’s apse: a semicircular area beyond the nave. Romans used the apse as the judge’s seat. Christians placed an altar, the bishop’s chair, seating for priests, and sometimes even the tombs of saints in the apse. The basilica, which was once a sign of Roman authority, quickly became a symbol of worship after the Christians modified this common architectural form.

New Christian Meanings

Indeed, the artistic forms and motifs of the Romans, as well as their architectural styles, received new meanings when the Christians began to use them. Christians used their art and architecture primarily to express their spiritual beliefs and communicate their faith in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God. Unlike the Romans, who tended to focus on the material world, Christians adopted an otherworldly view that focused on the deep meanings of the teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Further, Christians frequently incorporated their own symbols into their art. Simple symbols like a fish, an anchor, a dove, grapes and wheat, and a peacock assumed profound significance when viewed through a Christian lens. The fish, for instance, pointed to Jesus Himself, the anchor to Christian stability and hope for the future, the dove to the Holy Spirit, grapes and wheat to the Eucharist, and the peacock to everlasting life. Early Christians also often depicted scenes from the Bible, both the Old Testament, which they believed foreshadowed Jesus, and the Gospels. Romans, of course, would have lacked access to these new Christian meanings and images.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Early Christian artists borrowed artistic forms and motifs from the Romans, but they used them to express and deepen their Christian faith. Shared artistic forms include frescoes, which are watercolor paintings done on plaster, relief sculptures, which stand out from a background like 3D pictures, mosaics, which are images formed from hundreds of small pieces of stone or glass, and decorative marble tombs called sarcophagi.

Christian artists adopted and adapted such Roman artistic motifs as the shepherd figure, the philosopher figure, the reclining figure, the law giver figure, the festive meal, and the triumphant entry. They assigned new meanings to these motifs according to their Christians beliefs, for instance, using the shepherd to depict Jesus and the festive meal to stand for the Eucharist.

Early Christians also borrowed from the Romans in their architectural endeavors. For the first two centuries, they worshiped in house churches, which were private homes of the Roman style that were modified to accommodate the celebration of Christian sacraments. After Christianity became legal in 313 CE, Christians often built their churches using the Roman architectural form of the basilica.

Finally, unlike the Romans, early Christians used their art and architecture primarily to express their spiritual beliefs and communicate their faith in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God. They incorporated an otherworldly view as well as many Christian symbols and Biblical stories into their art, which made it uniquely Christian no matter how many Roman forms, motifs, and architectural styles they borrowed.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • List some of the art forms early Christians adopted from the Romans
  • Discuss some of the Roman symbols included in early Christian art
  • Explain how early Christians modified the Roman home and the basilica for the first churches
  • Recall some of the new religious motifs Christians incorporated into their early art